by Jim Renick
After World War II, North American missionaries discovered a new mission field—Western Europe.
After World War II, North American missionaries discovered a new mission field—Western Europe. Some GIs who helped to liberate Europe politically went back to do the same thing spiritually.
Generally, they chose to work on their own, apart from existing churches and denominations. Strategically, their plan of independent foreign intervention was one that General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allies’ Supreme Commander, had rejected for his successful military campaign. The analogy bears further scrutiny.
During the war, Ike had straggled with a fateful decision as D-Day approached. Finally, against the advice of powerful political and military leaders in London and Washington, he decided to form separate armored units of Free French volunteers under General Charles deGaulle to fight alongside the Allies, rather than to integrate them into existing Allied units.
As a result, many French cities, including Paris itself, were liberated by the Free French. Psychologically, this meant a great deal to the French and to France’s political future, perhaps even sparing them a communist takeover. At the time, the wisdom of Eisenhower’s decision was difficult to discern. So, in the early years of post-war missionary work in Europe, the basic strategy was hard to evaluate. More recently, however, a number of questions have arisen about that strategy.
No one doubts the potential represented by North American missionary efforts in Europe: personnel, funds, ideas, enthusiasm and initiative, the vigor of youth and newness, the gift of friendliness that helps personal evangelism and follow-up. On the debit side, however, some missionaries lack language skills and a feeling for the culture. Their new churches often are short on mature believers, entire families, church buildings and other properties, the gifts of nurture and edification, and the credibility and visibility that come with years of experience and tradition. These are the very things that European believers and churches have to offer. Potentially, the foreign missionaries and the European churches could not be more complementary.
On the U.S. side, this partnership strategy needs as much publicity as the independent church-planting strategy does, if American young people are to consider it as a viable option for future missionary service in Europe. American churches have a right to know that this is an appropriate and effective form of ministry to support. After all, isn’t some form of cooperative ministry what most American churches would expect if the reverse were true: if European churches began sending missionaries into American towns and cities to evangelize and to plant churches?
In terms of the basic missiological issue, it is time to compare the independent and cooperative strategies. But such a comparison will not be possible, unless mission agencies take a more balanced approach to church planting in Europe, by giving more time, research, people, and money to cooperation with existing churches.
One straw in the wind that shows that the time is ripe for open discussion is a survey of missionaries in Europe, done by World Mission Associates in 1986. The survey indicates tolerance of different strategies and a desire for "equal time" for both approaches.
Twenty years ago, Frank Horton, veteran American missionary in Europe, proposed a new set of criteria for the next generation of missionaries to Europe. He observed that ". . . broadly speaking, Americans have made a positive contribution to the evangelical communities of Western Europe. . . . (But) as competent European Christian leaders have watched the growing influx of workers from the New World, their reactions and comments have not always been marked by unqualified approval. . . (and) we must. . . accept many of their criticisms as basically justified."
He concluded, "We need more missionaries in Europe, but they should be the right kind…(who)…aim at working with existing European churches and evangelical organizations to strengthen them…"
More recently, Allen Koop, in his book, American Evangelical Missionaries in France, 1945-1975, urged American missionaries to work much more closely with existing Protestant and evangelical churches already indigenous to French culture. He quotes a respected veteran missionary leader, who wrote in 1969:
I think that our difficulty is deeper than most of us are willing to admit. It is the tremendous gulf that separates us from the people we are trying to reach. This gulf is cultural…philosophical…linguistic… social…(and finally) religious….We often communicate the external trappings of our particular brand of Christianity rather than the inner beauty….Perhaps the success we see in our work is not because we are necessarily bridging the gulf, but because some French people are willing to leap over to our side in order to have Christ.
This book prompted World Mission Associates to launch a survey of English-speaking foreign workers in both French-speaking and German-speaking Europe. The eight questions were intended to discover missionary thinking and practice in relation to European Christians and churches. To draw the issues sharply, and to provoke clear-cut reactions, the survey was accompanied by articles by Arthur Glasser, dean emeritus, Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Mission, and Glenn Schwartz, executive director, World Mission Associates.
Missionaries feel deeply about their strategies in Europe. An overwhelming 90 percent of the respondents said they would like to meet with their peers and/or European church representatives, to discuss the issues raised in the questionnaire. (We received a 20 percent return, 93 surveys from French-speaking areas and 50 from German-speaking areas.)
The questions evoked some highly emotional and strongly-held responses. Missionaries ranged from new recruits to veterans with over 30 years’ experience. They represent more than 50 agencies. Thirty were Europeans, mostly British.
Thirty-two missionaries were so intense, infuriated, stimulated, or appreciative that they wrote 81 extra pages, one of them sending nine pages, single-spaced, in total disagreement with Glasser and Schwartz. All of the missionaries want to reach Europe’s spiritually needy people. In many cases, there is some openness to new approaches.
Although Glasser’s text was intentionally provocative, over 60 percent of the missionaries who responded to the WMA survey indicated general agreement with it. Recognizing that his analysis is an oversimplification, many nevertheless indicated that such a frank assessment was both long overdue and essentially accurate. Further, the respondents are doing a wide range of ministry tasks, and almost two-thirds of them (60 percent) say that their ministries include some cooperation and partnership with Europeans, which, on the whole, is a quite positive arrangement.
But what about new converts? Should they be encouraged to remain in existing European churches? Or should new and separate congregations be formed with and for such new believers? Here, opinions could hardly have been more evenly divided between: (1) planting new churches is the only acceptable solution; (2) it mainly depends on the spiritual conditions in the existing churches; (3) either solution might be acceptable, with each case being decided on its own merits; (4) remaining within existing churches is the only appropriate solution, even if difficult at times.
Missionaries cited more than 20 examples of successful work with European partners. However, not many are practicing this approach to the degree suggested by Frank Horton: "…there are top-notch leaders among European Christians….Would you be willing to work under the authority of one of them, seeking his advice, valuing his criticism, admitting your mistakes, earning your acceptance the hard way? Such European leaders need competent collaborators in every domain, humble partners who are willing to listen, learn, take orders, adapt, persevere, win their spurs on the job."
The survey asked about church growth as a result of both renewal and evangelism. Missionaries cited many examples from American missionary work, but they also referred to European church circles.
Responses to Schwartz were equally varied. Partnership with Europeans was seen as valuable, requiring conscious choice, discipline, flexibility, and adaptation. Pride and cultural differences were cited as more likely obstacles to mutual acceptance than doctrinal differences. Nevertheless, the doctrine of separation remains a strong driving force among some missionaries.
Many missionaries thought that the two articles implied that partnership had to be with the historic churches. However, the crucial issue is to find the most compatible partner with whom one can work most efficiently in basic agreement about methods and theology. For those missionaries coming out of a mainline denominational tradition in the U.S., that could very well mean serving within the Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, or Baptist churches in Europe, with, of course, the agreement of the local pastor and church leaders. Working cooperatively with evangelical congregations within those historic European denominations is no different than raising funds from similar churches in North America.
It’s not surprising that the Adversary’s top priority has been to keep the two Christian "armies" out of touch with each other as much as possible. Many actually believe that such separation is the will of their common commander-in-chief, the Lord of the harvest. Such is the classic divide-and-conquer strategy of any military foe who sows seeds of fear, jealousy, and suspicion among the various components of opposing forces.
Given the fervent commitment of Europe’s evangelical churches, the dynamic presence of the American missionary force, and the credibility of the historic European churches (not to mention renewal within the Catholic churches), the evangelization of Europe could be immeasurably enhanced, if all three groups could somehow find ways to work together. We should start with tolerance and respect for diverse approaches, followed by "equal time" given to disseminating information, recruitment, and fund raising. Europe’s evangelical leaders should be invited to speak to the issues in North American churches. "Equal time" for all approaches means helping young people to find roles in Europe for which they are best suited and in which they will be the most effective. It is not too late to decide to work together in the battle for Europe’s soul.
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